Rabbi Ari Cartun's family having Shabbat dinner together, March 2020.
Rabbi Ari Cartun's family having Shabbat dinner together, March 2020.

Virtual Judaism is being forced upon us. I’m determined to make the best of it.

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Last Friday night, my wife and I celebrated a Shabbat dinner with our daughters and son-in-law … with proper social distancing.

We live in Palo Alto. Our twins live together in San Francisco. Our eldest lives in Los Angeles. Our middle daughter and her husband live in San Diego. We all lit candles together, sang Kiddush together, and ate and chatted together. We used Google Meet to do it, but we also could have used Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or any of the other video conferencing platforms out there.

We did this because of the plague besetting us all now, the COVID-19 virus, that has us all hunkering down at home across the whole state of California.

We have lived in these four places for some time now, and it never crossed our minds to have a virtual Shabbat dinner together until this plague and its restrictions quarantined us all.

And after I finish writing today, I will be sharing a Manhattan together (virtually) with my brother who lives in North Carolina.

And all this because the plague has caused us to be shut-ins.

Now I teach virtual classes, meet with study partners and study groups virtually, and will soon (G0d willing!) be holding a virtual seder. As Exodus 12:22 warned the Israelites in Egypt, “Don’t go out the door of your house tonight!” And so rabbinical groups of all denominations are warning us not to hold group seders or travel to go to one.

Not that I think this dark death is in any way a good thing. It’s not. But it may well have beneficial effects on all of society.

The irony is that though we are all practicing “social distancing,” many of us are becoming closer to those we love because we know why we need to reach out.

I spent all of Sunday calling family and friends across the country, and emailing my friends in Israel and Europe. In fact, as many have remarked, we should not practice social distancing, but physical distancing and social nearing!

Because of our Talmud group going virtual, we were able to include members who are currently out of town, and even out of the country. We could have included them this way before we went totally virtual, but we hadn’t ever seriously considered it before.

As a member of the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative rabbinical associations, I read the emails and group chats of my colleagues as we all grapple with the effects of this COVID-19 plague.

The more traditional of us have had to decide whether or not to stream services and Torah study on Shabbat and Passover. The others have no qualms about the permissibility of using electronic assistance on holy time. But we all share the problem of lousy feedback on all of these platforms.

For example, as our family lit Shabbat candles and sang the blessing in “unison,” it sounded like a yeshivah from hell, as everyone’s microphones lagged about half a second from each other.

The same thing happened on Shabbat morning when we all read the blessings before I taught a congregational Torah study.

Reading or singing, that damnable lag time (due to differing connection speeds and processing power) makes group participation difficult. And so it goes. We are all learning how to do this together.

And some churches, I hear, are even thinking of bringing back drive-in services, where the service is broadcast over short-distance FM radio while folks sit in their cars in the parking lot, just to feel the spirit of a congregation in person.

What will be the ultimate changes to our ritual and social future based on our experiences in this plague?

It is too soon to tell.

But for sure it will have impacts far beyond our imagination.

In any case, while you distance your body from those of other people, remember to reach out, by phone or conferencing program, to the ones you care about.

And may we all get through this alive.

As Deuteronomy 4:9 says, “Just be very careful and guard your life well!”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Ari Cartun
Rabbi Ari Cartun

Rabbi Ari Cartun was the Hillel rabbi at Stanford University, and is currently emeritus rabbi of Congregation Etz Chayim of Palo Alto. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, “Mindware for a G0dwrestler: Jewish Thought in the Age of Thinking Machines.”